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A Padaung woman weaving in a refugee camp


From The Asian Reporter, V13, #10 (March 4-10, 2003), page 16.

Understanding Burma

From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey

By Pascal Khoo Thwe

HarperCollins, 2002

Hardcover, 320 pages, $24.95

By Josephine Bridges

Pascal Khoo Thwe received the seventh annual Kiriyama Prize for From the Land of Green Ghosts, the astonishing account of his childhood and youth in Burma and his exile in Thailand and Great Britain. This prize is awarded annually in recognition of books that "promote greater understanding of and among the nations of the Pacific Rim and South Asian subcontinent." Readers who wish to increase their understanding of one of the world’s most elusive countries would do well to begin with this "Burmese Odyssey."

In his foreword, Cambridge University professor — and Thwe’s friend and mentor — John Casey describes this memoir as "a spiritual autobiography in which, uniquely, he writes with the point of view both of a member of a bronze-age, newly literate tribe and of someone who in the end managed to receive a Western education at a famous English university." While Thwe’s life is indeed extraordinary, it is his perspective that ultimately inspires wonder.

"Idyll of the Tribe" may be the title of the book’s first part, but it is idyllic only in comparison with what follows. "My mother couldn’t speak my father’s language, Padaung, when she married him, only Karen. I myself ended up speaking Burmese, which is neither my father’s nor my mother’s tongue," Thwe mentions in his prologue. The first chapter, "The Goddess of Creation," contains stories about the unlikely origin of mangoes and a mischievous creature named Big Ball, as well as "A Very Short History" of Burma, a marvel of concision and clarity. Thwe goes on to introduce readers to some of the delicacies enjoyed by his tribe, the Padaung: baby wasps and beetles, green caterpillars, porcupine, and armadillo.

In a chapter titled "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Padaung," Thwe tells a story of staggering corruption, when "Burma, which was the world’s biggest exporter of rice before the Second World War, became a net importer." We learn here that the "green ghosts" of the title are "the most feared of all spirits," victims of accidents and murders. The author’s grandfather, a powerful tribal leader near death, quips that he hopes the queue for heaven "is not as long as for the Socialist shops."

Thwe begins the central part of his narrative in Mandalay, Burma. At the University of Mandalay, the author is taught that in the West "things were so advanced that pigs could be grown on trees, and that a type of furniture had been developed that could be eaten if ever food supplies ran low." Another teacher instructs his class: "You may talk of Western freedom, but here in Burma we have a far superior and more genuine freedom." He backs this cruel and absurd assertion with stories of how the ancient Burmese could "fly in the sky" and "defeat the enemies of Burma simply by their use of the power of thought." When a student who argues with this teacher is sent to a hard-labor camp and then to an insane asylum, the teacher takes this as proof that dissent was rationally unthinkable: "You see, all those colonial and capitalist minions are mad. Don’t believe a word they say."

Speaking of madness, in 1985 and again in 1987 the Burmese government de-monetized the nation’s currency. The first time around, all hundred-, fifty-, and ten-kyat notes were declared worthless, to be replaced by seventy-five-, thirty-five-, and fifty-kyat notes. Two years later, all of these new notes, in addition to twenty-five-kyat notes, were de-monetized without compensation, to be replaced by notes in amounts divisible by nine, "which astrologers had long ago told General Ne Win was his lucky number."

When Thwe witnesses soldiers killing peacefully demonstrating monks, he is politically galavanized, and not long afterward sets off to join the rebels fighting the Burmese army. Along the way, villagers living only twenty miles from his home describe abuses the army has committed against them, and he writes, "I was shocked at my own ignorance … I had heard stories of atrocities like these … I had thought them invented, so passively had I absorbed government propaganda." A great strength of this book is Thwe’s articulate examination of internalized oppression. Describing his parents’ generation, he writes, "In the end, perhaps unconsciously, they assumed that to express any individual political opinion was so shocking as to be virtually criminal."

The final part opens in Thailand, where Thwe is recuperating from malaria and reading books lent to him by the son of Burmese hero Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite misgivings over abandoning his friends and the struggle in Burma, Thwe chooses to accept an offer to study at Cambridge University, hoping to tell his country’s story to a bigger audience.

"I could not get away from the feeling not only that I had no right to be here, but also that I had no right to have left the jungle, my friends and what seemed to be my destiny. My sensitivity fed off both my own culture of shame and the Western culture of guilt," writes Thwe of his early days at Cambridge. "I felt like the Ancient Mariner, cursed to tell my story all the time to strangers." "The hardest thing, though, was the very idea of forming my own opinion." It never does get easy. During a break in his final exams, the author picks up a newspaper and learns that two of his friends have been "gunned down in Burma by the pro-government militia."

From the Land of Green Ghosts is a stunningly written story. Pascal Khoo Thwe’s command of his second language never falters. Bawdy, scholarly, confessional, and poetic by turns, it carries its readers to a land many of us wish never to set foot in, and a legacy we are relieved we don’t share. We are better people for it. Now what can we do for Burma?


Green ghosts in Portland    

Author Pascal Khoo Thwe, 2002 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Prize-winner, visits Powell’s

By Polo

If you ask a Paduang highlander from Myanmar’s lush Shan Plateau, there’s five kinds of death. Each has its own spiritual consequences. There’s the usual: perishing at childbirth, from illness, and age. Normal passing. Then there’s the truly troublesome: mysterious death and  “raw” death. Mysterious passing is, well, mysterious — unexplainable. Raw death is sudden, like a car crash or a murder. Spirit is unexpectedly shaken free from bones. Ghosts of folk suddenly dead often don’t know what happened, and when they finally find out they’re not too happy about it. Most don’t want to go. Many get really mad. They get green.

Hence the title of Paduang author Pascal Khoo Thwe’s exquisitely executed memoir From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey (reviewed by The Asian Reporter’s Josephine Bridges, March 4, 2003).

Mr. Khoo Thwe left his tribe as a young man, descending into the hot central plain of Mandalay to study in a Catholic seminary. His family elders warned him against all the evils the big city held, among them poisonous Burmese whiskey, Natsaya witches, and of course hungry green ghosts.

Maybe that explains Mr. Khoo Thwe’s edginess when he spoke at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne earlier this month. Maybe that goes for all traditional peoples’ nervousness in urban Portland, troubled as we are by intersecting mile-a-minute freeways and our homicidal summers.

Myanmar-born, Cambridge-educated, now London-based, writer Pascal Khoo Thwe won the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Prize in 2002 for his dreamy memoir. David Takani, reviewer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, said “more than just words on a page, the book has the effect of an enthralling dream that lingers in the mind long after waking.”

Kirkus Reviews called the book “a distinguished accomplishment that radiates both intelligence and spiritual awareness .…” Not bad for an upcountry boy. Barely believable no matter what neighborhood you’re from.

Mr. Khoo Thwe has packed into 36 years his tearful departure from his hilly homelands; the horrible loss of his college girlfriend to arrest, rape, then murder; his fortuitous escape from Myanmar’s brutal military regime; and his education in one of the West’s grandest institutions. Both Mr. Khoo Thwe’s Panduang tenderness and the Cambridge polish so evident in his writing came through in his presentation before a rain-sodden Portland crowd at Powell’s on Hawthorne.  

The author is a walking-talking study in unlikely blends. East and West. Like his grandmother, who he says estimated the newly arrived Christian God likely more powerful than their older mountain and river spirits, and therefore pretty useful — Mr.  Khoo Thwe seems pretty astute at taking along with him all the portable goods providence has provided him. And he does so with the simplicity and sincerity of a Shan highlander.  “I was lucky,” he says, “to be brought up in the Old World. To be brought up properly.”

Of his numerous near escapes, his recurring stone-cold loneliness, his recent literary acclaim, Pascal Khoo Thwe says without doubt, “for me as a Christian, it has all been Providence. It means I have a mission in life, to return to Burma and help my people.”

The paperback version of From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, published by Perennial this month, is available for $13.95.


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